Be FIT, travel your way

The “Free Independent Traveler” (FIT) is a term I came across reviewing an article for work, and I immediately found it very accurate. The idea is that modern travelers rely less and less on pre-organised packages, tours and all-inclusive agency bookings. People create their own holiday experiences, DIY style, mix-matching various service providers to create hyper-tailored holiday experiences.

Travel-940x270Do you remember the last time you booked a holiday from A to Z with one agency, including the flights, hotel and activities? Yeah, that might even be ‘never’. It’s time to face it, you are a FIT too.

You prefer using comparison websites to find the cheapest, most convenient flight possible. You browse the internet to find the coolest, most hip and unconventional things to do during your city trip, based on other’s comments and experiences. Sometimes, you just decide to let yourself guided by the moment, only book the main things and leave the rest to improvisation or local recommendations.

Because I can’t help it, here are a few products and business models surfing on the FIT wave:

All-in, hyper functional wearables like the iWatch, Google Glasses or other smartwatches are you best friends to survive and plan in an unknown location.

Have you heard of “braggies“, these selfies where you brag about where you are? Of course you have. And so have hotel chains who encourage them for rewards, and so the creators of the Braggie app. Even buses in Glasgow have their own selfie competition.

No need to push the braggie as far as this guy with his Go Pro on top of skyscrapers in Hong Kong, though.Skyscraper_Selfie_2

Cooking and dining with locals is the next cool thing. Bookalokal started in Brussels and is now worldwide. You can also have the full experience by staying at locals and letting them show you around (like Hospitality Plus Scotland).

Experience websites that tap into emotions with great visuals and user experience. You too, you will want to go to Tennessee after checking the Tennesse Vacation website, I swear.

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Lastly, I’m not going to offend you by explaining the sharing economy.

If you don’t know what it is, time to leave the dog at DogVacay, hop on an Uber, get a Getaround and check in to your first Airbnb, then. NOW!

 Have fun, FIT people!

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The Dublin Express

When Ryanair opened a Glasgow International-Dublin flight and decided to price it at £20 for the return trip, I knew I had no other option than to hop on it.

This was my second visit to Dublin (first in 2012). As I had done all the touristy bits that time (Guinness Storehouse, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Trinity College and the Book of Kells…), I decided to just go with the flow. Here are my week-end highlights and recommendations for any impromptu Dublin city-break.

Visit the Google offices.

Seriously, do. They boast the highest building of the city (13 storey, people, get excited!) and a true corporate Disneyland. So much that I find amazing how employees can focus on their job rather than play and eat all day. I guess the excitement progressively wears out. Mine did not!

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In Google European Headquarters, you’ll find: kitchens filled with amazing snacks, fruits, cakes and drinks on every floor; toys scattered all over the open-floors (Nerf guns among others); cosy, colourful and super techy meeting rooms and booths everywhere; massive social spaces for drinks and events; a restaurant with free international food for breakfast, lunch and dinner – you heard me – a doctor; massage room and post office…oh and let’s not forget a swimming pool and hyper-equipped gym. I might have hyperventilated, then. All of this with a pretty cool view over the city (rain included in the package).

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I think I would be incapable of working there for sheer focus issues, but I utterly enjoyed the visit!

Meander.

Having an aimless walk in a city and following the streets to wherever they want to lead you (with the help of your friend Google Maps, let’s not push the adventure too far) is sometimes the best way to discover a city. Get off the beaten tracks and forget about tourist guides, you will see lovely things in Dublin, among which the famous Dublin doors.

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Eat, drink, rave, repeat. 

And last but not least, the food review! If you fancy a lovely brunch by the docks, go to Herbstreet and try their mushroom-loaded toast. For a chill evening of wine sampling and elegant dining, discover the Dublin Wine Rooms in the financial district. In the mood for a wild party at the heart of Grafton street? Hit Lillie’s Bordello. And try to find your way back home. On the next day, have a recovery brunch at Avoca on Suffolk Street (picture below). Then, meander in their shop for an hour, have a very long walk and refuel with an espresso from 3FE Coffee. You’ve just won the hipster badge. And just because, top it up with a quite decent plate of maki and gyoza from Musashi. Once you have done this and, if need be, had a look at my reviews of these places on Yelp, have a small food coma on the plane back home…

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…and give a big thank you to your host for showing you a fantastic time and to your Irish flatmate for being the perfect partner in crime.

Until next time, Ireland!

 

 

Conferences, beans and blues.

This is a travel/work-related post, as it is about going to a conference in Indianapolis, and visiting a friend in Chicago at the same time. Well, this was a few months ago but I guess it’s never too late to share my best shots and impressions, on this second trip ever to the great US of A.

Fact1: I want to live in Chicago! 

I mean…don’t you?

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Fact 2: You can only look stupid on a picture where you are giving a speech…

…but I am still very proud of not loosing my English during the presentation, tripping over my own foot, or having my mind go blank at any point: so here is a shot of my grandiose conference presentation about anti-branding. Mmm, I need to do a post about anti-branding. And put my jacket over my belt.

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Fact 3: Conferences are one of the most enjoyable aspect of academic life 

You get to travel around, visit places you might never have gone to otherwise, and meet wonderful people. Hereunder at the Chicago “bean” with my colleague Anais from Belgium:

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…and here in Indianapolis, having pints and waiting for our probably 6th burger meal in a week, with all the researchers from the UK  that I could find. It felt like home, and so good to be able to say “lovely” and “brilliant” without being laughed at. Seriously, I am not used to everything being “O.M.G.! AMAZING!” all the time. FYI, the burgers were not.

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Fact 4: Meeting alumni from your Alma Mater scattered all over the world is fantastic

Belgians might not be the most prone to expatriation (because it’s a really good country to live in, …probably?), but meeting friends from uni years after and miles away is such a treat. Here, we are with Roberto and Camille who have studied international business with us in Belgium, and now live in Chicago. (#HECULg4ever)

 

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Fact 5: There is no fact 5, I just need to reassert my point that Chicago is beautiful 

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And finally, because a post about Chicago cannot not mention blues, and because I think this might have been recorded when I was in the audience, here is a song from the Chicago Blues Bar. Enjoy!

Comme disait Yoko Ono…

On my way back from Greece, I had a two-day stop-over in London. As I had already seen most of the “must-see” place in London, I decided to see where my steps would take me.

The quote above is by Yoko Ono, a truly interesting artist whose work I had never seen before.

At the Yoko Ono exhibition, I also played a giant chess game and saw people getting lost in a glass maze.

Then I got trapped in the crowd going to a so-called “Wireless Festival” in Hyde Park – apparently featuring Drake, Rihanna, Deadmau5, Jessie J and Nicky Minaj…who are these people?

Running away from that crowd, I had chat with a couple of squirrels trying to get a piece of my almond moon (a most-delicious-and-until-then-unknown type of pastry). Bas les pattes, petit animal!

Then of course, I paid my respects to the Queen. Well, I mean…I waved at her modest house, took a picture and went away. Nothing so special about it, I have to say: the Belgian Royal palace is much bigger! (in my mind at least…)

On the next day, I made my way toward the Thames.

…and had delightful time at the Tate Modern.

Among other interesting facts, I got trapped with my friend Slaveya into a gay parade in Soho. Sadly, no picture can testify what my innocent eyes saw over there.

Oh, and I had the most fantastic lunch at the Belgian place “Pain Quotidien”.

What else could I ask for, really?

Trdelnik, Vltava, Karluv Most…Praha!

This cryptic title is just a couple of words in Czech that I picked up from our trip in Prague, which was my Christmas present from Thomas. Trdelnik is the name of a local specialty that they made abundantly on the Christmas market and that we loved. The Vltava is the name of the river and the Karluv most is the famous Charles bridge that goes over it. Praha is Prague in Czech…and it is one of the most beautiful cities I have visited….take a look for yourself:

View on the beautiful Castle, from the Charles bridge
View on the Vltava and bridges up from the Letna park
Tribute to Vaclav Havel, former Czech president on Wenceslas avenue
Magic Christmas market on the Old Town Square
Jewish cemetery in Josefov area
John Lennon Wall in Kampa area

Prague is really a city I recommend and I could not have hoped for a better Christmas break. The city is fantastic to walk in. You see decorated facades, beautiful houses, churches, one of the biggest castle complex in Europe, charming bridges, a lovely Christmas market, an impressive Astronomic clock, nice parks…And luckily it was not that cold when were there, so we could stay out quite a lot. The cultural life is very rich in general: on top of the Castle and the Jewish area, we also visited the museum Mucha (a famous painter), the museum Kafka (Czech writer) and went to a classical music concert in the amazing Municipal House.

Happy 2012 everybody!

I love bibimbap!

Expats living in China will understand when I say that Seoul is civilization. A bit like Japan, I guess, although I have never been. When you arrive in Seoul, you understand that the economic boom is over, that middle class as we know it in Europe has already developed and settled, and that, thank goodness, people have manners as we mean it.

The only tiny negative point about this trip to South Korea was that I visited in the middle of the rain season. What can you do…although it rained on and off for 4 days, at least it was a bit cooler than Shanghai: we left China under 35-40°C, so a small 25°C, even with wet feet, was much appreciated.

For four days, I roamed each corner of the city. Or at least it feels like a saw a great deal of this vast capital.

In Seoul, temples and palaces are legion. There are 6 main palaces in the city centre. Each time, they are a collection of temples serving multiple and varied functions, and arranged in a very large space with beautiful gardens, ponds and parcs around. What I loved most about old Seoulite temple architecture was the way temples were painted in bright, yet elegant colors. It gives a sense of harmony, detail and yet simplicity that I have not found in Chinese temple architecture.

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To my greatest delight, Seoul is also a city rife with museums and art galleries. I found the Seoul Art Center to be undeniably the best place for art lovers: a plethora of exhibitions are grouped there, along with theatres, an opera and the school of arts. I would also warmly recommend visiting the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, in the Itaewon area. No, it is not a museum of mobile phones, it is just commissioned by the Korean electronics giant Samsung. Seoul also has a tradition of making craft masks, which I found really impressive:

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Another wonder about Seoul is its food. First of all, do not worry if there is about a dozen different tiny dishes accompanying your main dish. These contain assorted pickled vegetables, which vary according to the restaurant and area. Amongst them, though, a constant: there is always, always kimchi. Kimchi is white cabbage, pickled and preserved in a mixture with chilli and garlic. It seems that Koreans eat it with about every meal. Let me assure you that your nice breath takes a hit after a mouthful of kimchi!

A traditional dish is the bibimbap (picture below), which comes in a stone dish and contains rice, vegetables, mince, egg yolk…all of this mixed in a spicy sauce. It’s abosultely gorgeous! The traditional Korean barbecue is also a must: they bring a little portable barbecue at your table (if the table is not already fitted with a built-in barbecue) and you can cook beautiful thin-cut slices of beef or pork yourself.

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South Koera also bears a number of surprises for the European traveler: a unique alphabet invented by Kind Sejong in the 15th century; toilets fitted a very disturbing system of cleaning sprays and blows (AND a self-heating seat), and locals sporting high-heeled Wellies. Rainy season, but in style, please!

Thailand

On February 3rd, 2011, day of the Chinese New Year, we flew to Bangkok on our way to a longer trip in Laos. We only got to spend a day there before flying to Chaing Rai, in the North.

Although Bangkok has a sad reputation of being the capital city of sex tourism, it is also and most importantly, a beautiful Asian city to visit. Thailand is economically much more advanced than its neighbor Laos, and tourism plays an important role in this financial stability. They speak Thaï, have Teravada Bouddhism as main religion and the currency is the baht (40 000 baht = roughly 1 euro).

We decided to spend the very little time we had there as perfect tourists, and visited the Royal Palace. As you can see, sobriety is not a key word there: there are loads of golden ornaments and architecture is extremely detailed. The Royal Palace is a hallmark of the city and the King himself is really close to a living God – you can see his picture on every corner.

Like many other Asian capitals, Bankgok is hustling and bustling day and night. Thai people love flowers too, which they use as gifts to Buddha and arrange is sophisticated ornaments. Below a picture of the flower market.

Bangkok is not only a treat for the sense of smell, but also that of taste! Local specialties can be found and eaten anywhere in the streets: chicken satay skewers, fried anything, Phos, …and insects! I tried with much anticipation and pleasure a few fried insects…Yummi!

After a brief walk through the hot district where the population is composed almost exclusively of white male and Thai girls, cute night markets were a much appreciated change of air and ended my first and only day in Bangkok before flying to the north of Thailand.

Weekend in Beijing

After living for 4 months in China, it was high time for me to go and visit Beijing. I took advantage of an impromptu business trip to have an express tour of the capital city.

The week-end kicked-off in a bit of a rush: finish work at 7.30 on Friday night, leave Shanghai at 10.00 and arrive in Beijing by midnight. The next morning, wake up call at 7 am, direction the Great Wall.

Great Wall

The Great Wall (Chang Cheng in Chinese) is this massive and really impressive, 9000 km-long stone wall. We reached it by cable car and then started walking on the wall itself, which is quite a hike! Reaching the highest towers takes a while, and there are quite a few steps to take, but it is really worth the effort, especially with the wonderful weather we were lucky to have.

We visited two spots on the Great Wall: Mutianyu, which is rather touristy, and Huang Hua, which is much quieter and secluded. In Mutianyu, after admiring the view and some intense leg action, we had an amazing time on the slide that took us down the wall. There again, you could see the difference between careless Europeans going down the slide as fast as possible, and respectful (or scared!) Chinese people going as slow as they could. I must confess to slightly bumping into a poor child in front of me…After these emotions, we took it to Huang Hua (Yellow Flower) in the afternoon for a bit of peace and quiet. We fished our own lunch and had it in a little hillside restaurant, with the same wonderful view of the wall.

On the Saturday night, it was the cherry on the cake! Or, rather, the duck on the crepe. As you know, Beijing is known for its “Peking Duck”, and it was a must for us to have it at least once. The cutting ceremonial that goes with it and the wonderful sauces and condiments made for a truly amazing meal.

Tiananmen Square

Forbidden City

On Sunday, we were off to the other key attraction of the city: the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square (above). The Forbidden City was erected in the middle of Beijing, under the Ming and Qing dynasties. At its entrance on Tiananmen Square, the massive portrait of chairman Mao reminds you not to speak too loud around there. We spent a few hours in the beautiful Forbidden City before heading to an area with traditional houses: the Hutongs (below).

Hutongs

We finished the trip with a visit of the very hype and busy area of Sanlitun, and then hopped back on the plane to kick-start a new week of work, super fresh!